Author: John Reganold
In 1971, then US Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz uttered these unsympathetic words: “Before we go back to organic agriculture in this country, somebody must decide which 50 million Americans we are going to let starve or go hungry.” Since then, critics have continued to argue that organic agriculture is inefficient, requiring more land than conventional agriculture to yield the same amount of food. Proponents have countered that increasing research could reduce the yield gap, and organic agriculture generates environmental, health and socioeconomic benefits that can’t be found with conventional farming.
Organic agriculture occupies only 1% of global agricultural land, making it a relatively untapped resource for one of the greatest challenges facing humanity: producing enough food for a population that could reach 10 billion by 2050, without the extensive deforestation and harm to the wider environment.
That’s the conclusion my doctoral student Jonathan Wachter and I reached in reviewing 40 years of science and hundreds of scientific studies comparing the long term prospects of organic and conventional farming. The study, Organic Agriculture in the 21st Century, published in Nature Plants, is the first to compare organic and conventional agriculture across the four main metrics of sustainability identified by the US National Academy of Sciences: be productive, economically profitable, environmentally sound and socially just. Like a chair, for a farm to be sustainable, it needs to be stable, with all four legs being managed so they are in balance.
We found that although organic farming systems produce yields that average 10-20% less than conventional agriculture, they are more profitable and environmentally friendly. Historically, conventional agriculture has focused on increasing yields at the expense of the other three sustainability metrics.